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Business

Centene ends big plans to bring East Coast HQ to Charlotte




Guests check out the model of Centene Corp.  East Coast headquarters campus plans under construction at University City Research Park in Charlotte in this 2021 file photo.  Centene confirmed that it is now no longer coming to Charlotte.

Guests check out the model of Centene Corp. East Coast headquarters campus plans under construction at University City Research Park in Charlotte in this 2021 file photo. Centene confirmed that it is now no longer coming to Charlotte.

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Health insurance giant Centene confirmed late Thursday afternoon that it is backing out of plans to create its East Coast hub in Charlotte — a stunning blow to the city, which had counted on the 3,200 jobs and $1 billion in investment that Centene had once promised.

Centene made the decision about the University City location because more people prefer to work from home or in a hybrid situation, a company spokesperson told The Charlotte Observer.

“Today, nearly 90% of our workforce works entirely remotely or in a hybrid work environment, and flexibility in the workplace is critical to attracting and retaining our top talent,” the spokesperson said.

The move stunned local leaders.

“We are deeply disappointed to see this project evaporate into thin air,” said Tobe Holmes, interim CEO of University City Partners.

When the deal was unveiled in mid-2020 to great fanfare, it was the largest single announcement in the history of the state’s current incentive program. The cents were in line to get up to $450 million in incentives over 39 years, and company leaders said their move would eventually lead to 6,000 jobs.

The St. Louis-based managed health care provider serves more than half a million North Carolinians and was most recently ranked No. 26 on the latest Fortune 500 list. Centene said its array of government-sponsored and commercial health programs offers products to nearly 1 in 15 people in the U.S.

Work on the hub in the University Research Park started two years ago and has been ongoing ever since.

“These decisions (to end the Charlotte plans) will not affect the quality, comprehensive health care we provide to our members or the longstanding partnerships we have with the state, our providers and our community partners,” the Centene spokesperson said.

Centene employees living in North Carolina will continue to work remotely or in a hybrid work environment.

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A construction worker, left, climbs a staircase in a lobby area of ​​what would become the 800,000-square-foot Centene Corp. The East Coast headquarters at University City Research Park in Charlotte in this 2021 file photo. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The history of the agreement

In July 2020, state and local officials touted the Centene headquarters as a major boon to the region and state with the promise of a billion dollar investment and over 3,200 jobs.

Gov. Roy Cooper said he was “proud to announce” the deal.

The company planned to build a 1 million square foot regional headquarters, focusing on information technology. The campus will eventually have six buildings, including an early childhood development center and a fitness center, as well as walking trails and water features.

These would have been high-paying jobs in areas such as technology, operations, customer service, finance, human resources and medical management. The average salary for the Centene positions is $100,089 in a county where the overall average annual salary was $68,070 in 2020.

Centene’s CEO at the time, Michael Neidorff said during the announcement, “We intend to be a strong partner in this community.”

North Carolina competed primarily with Tampa, Fla., and York County, SC, for the project, state officials had said.

Cooper was also present along with other local and state officials when he visited the site in June 2021 to check on construction progress.

The first phase was expected to open in 2022, and the Centene campus was eventually planned to cover 2.4 million square meters amidst the natural greenery of the University Research Park.

“When you’re talking about so many highly paid employees with a company like Centene that’s committed to diversity and inclusion and committed to making sure everyone has health care in North Carolina, it’s a great partnership for us to have,” Cooper said then the trip.

But late Thursday, Cooper’s office released a statement saying “we are disappointed” Centene will not be moving into the Charlotte campus, acknowledging that the company is “drastically downsizing” office space across the country. But the governor’s office still sees potential in the north Charlotte area, said Mary Scott Winstead, Cooper’s assistant communications director.

City and county affairs

The city of Charlotte will not follow through on the $31.6 million in incentives originally promised to the company through a business investment grant now that Centene has backed out, communications director Jason Schneider said.

Gregg Phipps, who sits on the Charlotte City Council and lives in University City, said the decision came as a surprise to him. But he understands that the pandemic is affecting companies’ return to the office.

“I’m disappointed about it,” Phipps said. “(COVID) just took a toll and affected their plans.”

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Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles attended a news conference announcing that Centene Corp., a St. Louis health insurance giant, will invest over $1 billion and bring at least 3,237 jobs to the Charlotte campus over the next decade. In turn, the company could receive $465.7 million in incentives over 39 years. It is the largest single announcement in the history of the state’s current incentive program, officials said Wednesday. The city of Charlotte

Similarly, the state had not yet paid any incentives to Centene.

Mecklenburg County was to invest $26 million in incentives for the company, and like the city, will change course.

“With this change of plans, these funds will no longer be available to Centene since these funds were based on a physical presence in Mecklenburg County,” county spokesman Andy Fair said.

Phipps hopes construction that has begun on the 800,000-square-foot office will attract other businesses.

“I hope it will be a magnet for corporate interests with more ambitious plans,” Phipps said. “It’s a big place over there, a beautiful place.”

The Charlotte Business Journal first reported Centene’s decision.

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Members of the media visited Centene Corp. East Coast headquarters under construction at 2405 Governor Hunt Road at University City Research Park in Charlotte in 2021. Someone else will occupy the site now. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

What next for the site?

Cenetne is committed to completing construction of the office building and listing it for sale, according to Assistant City Manager Tracy Dodson.

Dodson also said she was disappointed by the company’s decision.

Still, she added, “The Centers will maintain a significant presence in Charlotte, including 700 employees, and plan to retain their space at Camp North End near downtown.”

Holmes had recently taken a tour of the building, which he described as having about six months left on the job. The building had a lot of nice components like a big atrium when you walk in and water features, he said.

The news shows how unpredictable the office market remains in a post-COVID world, Holmes said.

He remains confident the building will be leased in the future, pointing to its proximity to a nearby greenway. Whether it is with a single tenant or several remains to be seen.

Observer business editor Adam Bell contributed to this report

This story was originally published August 18, 2022 6:26 p.m.

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Centene ends big plans to bring East Coast HQ to Charlotte

Genna Contino covers local government for the Observer, where she informs and serves people living in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. She attended the University of South Carolina and grew up in Rock Hill.





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